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February 17, 2022

This paper originally appeared in the New Direction, The European Journal at

By: Geoffrey Van Orden CBE, Distinguished Fellow

The Ukraine crisis could be the greatest boost to restoration of Western unity and the reinvigoration of NATO or it could deepen the transatlantic divide and further weaken the West’s standing in the world.

The crisis deepens

Since the seizure of the Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine in 2014 the build-up of Russian troops encircling the Ukraine has been in progress for over a year.

In the past four days, the danger of attack has been declared “imminent”. The military procedures, the drills, for changing to combat readiness are well known at both the strategic and tactical levels and well monitored by countries with sophisticated intelligence capabilities such as the United States and the United Kingdom.

The alarm cries from Western governments, predicting the imminent attack by Russia on Ukraine, would have been triggered by clear intelligence indicators. These would include evidence that Russian troops were setting up field hospitals; carrying out final fuel replenishment; loading live ammunition into tanks and other armoured vehicles; pre-positioning artillery ammunition; adjusting artillery fire plans; putting air defence and ground-attack aircraft on a higher alert stage; route marking by military traffic control units; combat units moving from their rear assembly points into tactical pre-battle formations closer to the Ukrainian border; electronic warfare and reconnaissance assets intensifying their activities; changes in the pattern of radio traffic; and overall readiness states reduced from days to hours. These are among the many attack indicators that analysts will note to warn of attack, passing their assessments immediately to war rooms and Governments. They will also know as soon as these measures are put on hold or genuinely go into reverse. But regardless of military capabilities, the missing piece of evidence is locked in President Putin’s head. We do not know his intentions.

Moscow’s claims that it is acting in response to a threat from NATO expansion fall into the category of ‘the big lie’, knowing that there will be sufficient people in Russia and among its allies and client states who will believe this.

The serious enlargement of NATO took place years ago and there has been no change in respect of Ukraine’s status, which lies dormant.

The last major eastwards expansion of NATO took place in 2004. Poland, Hungary and what is now the Czech Republic had already joined 5 years beforehand – that’s 23 years ago. At the NATO Summit in Bucharest in 2008 there was indeed recognition of the Ukraine’s aspiration to become a NATO member. Over the years since, there have been repeated assurances concerning membership but acceptance of the Ukraine’s application would have to be a unanimous political decision of NATO’s 30 member states, and there is little likelihood of this, given the political sensitivities. Last year’s NATO Summit in Brussels maintained this deliberately ambiguous position.

So what does Russia want – and why now?

Putin wants to re-unite the Soviet imperial sphere – only in this way, he thinks, can Moscow be taken seriously as a great power again. This would be his historic legacy. It could take many forms but a key element would have to be the Ukraine whose loss Putin regards as the greatest strategic disaster to befall Russia.

He wants a compliant Ukraine, ideally under full suzerainty of Russia, but if not, then under Russian influence and certainly not part of any Western military or economic bloc. He will not be satisfied with Ukraine merely withdrawing its application to join NATO. He has a wide range of options that might satisfy his appetite at this stage including: rigorous and rapid implementation of the Minsk Agreements, according to Putin’s interpretation (which would effectively give Moscow a say in the government of Ukraine); neutralisation of Ukraine; recognised secession of all Donetsk, Luhansk and the Crimea from Kyiv rule; or at the more extreme end, occupying all the majority Russian-speaking coastal areas including Odessa. Putin believes that now is the moment to achieve his wider ambition to restore Russian greatness after what he sees as the humiliations of thirty years ago.

As in a very serious game of chess, Putin sees the position as a Zugzwang – it is your turn to move and whatever you do will be bad for you.

He sees the West as weak, riven with domestic crises and the economic consequences of the Covid pandemic and ‘Wokeism’ eating away from the inside and casting doubt, particularly among many young Westerners, over the very foundations of the West.

The United States is reeling from the Afghanistan debacle and President Biden is seen to be indecisive and distracted by domestic issues. Boris Johnson’s position is in question. The new left-leaning German leadership hasn’t had time to settle in and would be prone to a soft option, strongly influenced by its energy dependency on Russia.

President Macron has his eyes on the French presidential elections just 4 months away and in any case has another, EU, agenda in play.

The impact of EU misplaced ambitions on Western unity

The EU is adept at turning a crisis into an opportunity and undoubtedly we shall now hear fresh calls for an EU Army. Far from strengthening the unity of the West and its ability to defend itself, the EU-effect, under French leadership, has been to weaken Western capabilities and the NATO alliance. Historically, both France and Germany have, at different stages of history, had special relationships with Russia. French policy since 1940, has been suspicious of the US and, under de Gaulle, often actively hostile. The Gaullist ambition has been to create a united Europe under French leadership without interference from ‘les Anglo-Saxons’, i.e. America and Britain. The latest evolution of this policy has been the idea of EU “strategic autonomy” – by definition separate from America , and by extension NATO, and therefore able to develop its own relations with Russia. This is precisely the Russian intention – to separate Europe from the US.

It is the power of the United States that gives credibility to Western deterrence through NATO, the only alliance capable of defending our democracies and resisting hostile powers such as Russia. So any policies which create divisions in NATO and the transatlantic alliance play into the hands of aggressors and make conflict more likely.

The UK’s Roles

British policy makers do not forget the reference to the 1938 Czech crisis as a “quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing". Today they know nowhere is far away and that Britain is still expected by many countries to lead by example. Russia is a threat to NATO allies such as Poland, Bulgaria and the Baltic states, where Britain has played a key role in providing military reinforcement in recent weeks.

We should not forget Britain’s particular responsibilities to the Ukraine resulting from its role as one of 3 co-signatories to the December 1994 Budapest memorandum. This followed Ukraine’s agreement to relinquish nuclear weapons inherited from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Ironically, along with the United States, the other co-signatory was Russia, undertaking “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine”. The co-signatories also committed to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine if Ukraine should become a victim of aggression.

Nevertheless, Britain was not involved in the 2014 “Normandy Format” (France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine) and did not therefore take part in the negotiations in 2015 of the so-called Minsk 2 Agreement that was supposed to bring conflict in the Ukraine to an end. This agreement has have never been fully implemented largely because of fundamentally different interpretations of what exactly it means.

Britain’s obligations to Ukraine are primarily as the leading European NATO member, aware of how threats to peace in Europe, beyond the immediate coverage of the NATO shield, will have major economic, security and humanitarian repercussions that would rapidly spill over into the NATO area.

The key position of Turkey

Certainly more attention in this crisis should have been given to the role of countries such as Turkey, strongly committed to the Ukraine but with a unique pragmatic relationship with Russia. In spite of her very active NATO membership since 1952, Turkey has been badly treated by her allies for some decades, with hostile EU attitudes led by France and Greece. The United Kingdom has been more positive but has not tried hard enough given the opportunities it seeks for new partnerships, and the importance of Turkey to Western interests. The US showed little sensitivity to Turkish concerns over Iraq; over the Kurdish groups operating in northern Syria; in its handling of Turkish involvement in the F35 combat aircraft programme; and in its response to the 2016 coup attempt against President Erdogan. All the Western players have accepted a bogus and hostile narrative concerning the Turkish intervention in Cyprus in 1974. This has corrupted their approach to the issue ever since and has become a serious obstacle to improved relations with Turkey.

If we didn’t think we needed wholehearted Turkish engagement as a Western ally before, we certainly do now. For a start, after Russia, Turkey has the largest armed forces in the region, and is the foremost NATO ally on the Black Sea with a very capable and growing naval inventory. She also holds the key to warship movements in and out of the Black Sea through her control of the Straits, albeit regulated by the 1936 Montreux Convention. Turkey has become a strong political and economic supporter of the Ukraine and a leading trade partner. In recent months Turkey has moved to